Finding the Lessons in Author Memoirs & Biographies

My memoir and biography shelves have been growing. Since we moved into our house, I’ve gone from maybe half a shelf in my built-in bookcase to almost two shelves, and they don’t even include the books still boxed up in my parents’ basement. I don’t seem to have a certain topic that stands out on those shelves, with a mixture of feminist, nerdy, and self-improvement books (and some combinations of those), but as a writer, I’d call the ones by authors my favorite, the ones in which we learn about their writing lives and processes.

I’ve always had an interest in the lives of writers. It began with Sylvia Plath’s story and the autobiographical aspects of The Bell Jar and advanced to include Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. My interests seemed to branch out from just biography to biography with a good helping of how-to. Most recently, I ordered books by and about Joyce Carol Oates and David Foster Wallace. I had downloaded Oates’ essay colleciton, The Lost Landscape: A Writer’s Coming of Age, in the fall and quickly realized that it was one I’d both love and need to own to devote my full attention to it. When I found it on Book Outlet in early January, I also did a quick search for David Foster Wallace’s essay collections and found Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace. I knew I needed both.The thing I love about these kinds of books, the kind that give you some insight into a person (a writer), isn’t just the overt lessons they can teach–like in On Writing and Bird by Bird–but also the things we learn just by hearing their stories. They teach us how the writer dealt with some kind of adversity in their life and their field, whether it was lack of support from others or confidence in themselves, or the pace at which they managed to reach their point of success (if at all). To me, they’re not only resonant on a human level, but also on a writer level. In so many biographies we read about a person’s struggles and how they pushed through; we know they did because we already see how the story ends–in this case, in publication. But it’s the journey that we can learn from and, in some cases, emulate in our own trials.

Often the answers and actions can feel obvious–ask for help, just keep writing (drawing, working, etc.)–but so much of what makes a difference is seeing someone else experience those struggles, those negative feelings that we get, too, and succeed. It’s the very definition of inspiration. You can hear the message repeated by those around you, even those who love you, but it’s when you finally hear it through the right voice that it sticks. The right voice, for me, is other writers because I know they’ve been here.

While some of my favorite role models are my own peers and friends, the ones who sit beside me in real time, and real life, and who will hold hands with me through our challenges, it can be nothing less than inspiring to read and learn from those who have already succeeded, whatever that looks like in their eyes and mine. Maybe it’s writing their memoir. Maybe it’s writing a whole bookstore display of works. Whatever that benchmark, they’ve reached a point where they believe, even a little, that their story is necessary to tell–necessary to themselves, and necessary to others.

February 20, 2017
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